Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.

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Medellín’s Comuna 13, 22 Years After Operación Orión

I’m off to the airport shortly to return to the United States. I had a few hours off here in Medellín today, though, to see an important part of the city that I’d visited in 2006 and 2013. Here are some quick notes.

Comuna 13 is a set of neighborhoods on the western edge of the city, first settled—often by forcibly displaced people—in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a “no go zone” for the rest of the city for many years, known for government neglect and gang violence. Guerrilla militias were dominant in the 1990s. Then, in 2002, the new government of Álvaro Uribe launched an intense military offensive in the neighborhood, “Operación Orión.” Soldiers and police fought hand-in-hand with brutal paramilitary groups to root out the guerrillas. Dozens were killed and disappeared; people still find bodies buried nearby.

The paramilitaries took over criminality in the neighborhood, which today continues to have a heavy gang presence. But Medellín’s mayors also started investing very heavily in Comuna 13, integrating these abandoned areas into the city’s civic and economic life, often working with community organizations.

See a report from my 2006 visit to Comuna 13 here (starting on page 11), with some photos of what the neighborhood looked like then. See, in Spanish, the National Center for Historical Memory’s report on Comuna 13 in 2001-2003.

Photos from my 2006 report.

So anyway, it was jarring to see the neighborhood now, after so many years. It is far more peaceful and prosperous, as gang disputes have eased and the government’s investments have borne fruit.

But most bizarrely, Comuna 13 is now a tourist destination. Not really because of its violent history—though hired guides will tell you about what happened there—but because it is accessible, has great views, and offers casual travelers a gritty, edgy, graffiti-artist atmosphere that you don’t find elsewhere in this business-friendly city of expressways and shopping centers.

So where not so long ago there were running battles and forced disappearances, you can take a series of escalators to areas stuffed with the kinds of bars and shops where you can buy a cannabis-infused beer and a Pablo Escobar t-shirt, or get tattooed. (There are more creative sites there too, but they’re being crowded out by a lot of stuff that…well, let’s just say it’s not for me.)

Comuna 13’s poverty is still there, very much in plain view, which makes the party vibe even more jarring. What I saw today is preferable to what I saw in 2006, but Comuna 13 is still, without a doubt, a very hard place to grow up or raise a family.

I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad that Comuna 13 is now easy to get to from the rest of Medellín, and is now considered an important part of the city.

At a Migration Conference in Medellín

Here are a few things I learned from fellow panelists at today’s sessions of a migration conference at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín.

Me (back, 2nd from left) with some of the conferencistas.

  • The largest number of people traveling through the Darién Gap get their information about the migration route through word of mouth, followed by WhatsApp, followed by other social media, followed by more reliable sources like humanitarian groups.
  • Of all major Colombian cities, Medellín is where business owners report being least willing to hire migrants.
  • In Medellín’s north-central Moravia neighborhood, organized crime demands larger extortion payments from Venezuelan small business owners than from Colombians. Most Venezuelans in the neighborhood do not intend to stay in Colombia: they either want to return to Venezuela if things improve, or they plan to move on. So they tend to choose not to mix into community life.
Poor hillside neighborhoods in northeast Medellín’s Comuna 3.

  • Among Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, there is a strong correlation between being a woman and the likelihood of being a victim of violence, including sexual violence.
  • Many Venezuelan LGBTQ+ migrants are fleeing attacks and discrimination, especially trans people who have it very bad there. But they more often cite “sexual liberation” or the availability of medical treatments, like HIV retrovirals, as their reasons for coming to Colombia.
  • Armed and criminal groups causing a lot of displacement and cross-border migration along Colombia’s remote southeast border with Venezuela and Brazil include FARC dissidents’ 10th front, the ELN, Brazil’s Garimpeiros, Venezuelan “sindicatos,” and Venezuela’s armed forces. All are profiting from illicit precious-metals mining and other environmentally disastrous practices, principally on the Venezuelan side of the border and usually in Indigenous territories. States are either absent, or part of the problem.
An ibis crosses my path at the University of Antioquia.

Hallway graffiti at the University reminds us to “unite under Maoism” and “down with revisionism.”

Video of Today’s Panel on Migration in Medellín

Here’s today’s panel at Medellín, Colombia’s Universidad de Antioquia, where I presented with Carolina Moreno of Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes. (It’s in Spanish, which means that viewers have to puzzle through my Spanish. I’m not much more articulate in English, honestly.)

Until I ran out of time, I spoke about current migration trends, what’s happening with U.S. border and migration policy, and the poor choices that countries have for managing in-transit migration.

You can download a PDF file of the slides I used at bit.ly/2024-adam-unal-med.

My deepest thanks to professors Lirio Gutiérrez and Elena Butti of the Universidad Nacional Sede Antioquia for leading the great team of faculty and students who have organized this two-day conference. I’ve learned a lot from the panels.

And there’s another in-person day to go. I’m moderating a panel at 9:00AM tomorrow local time (10:00 on the U.S. east coast) and the discussions of migration go on until 4:00PM.

So it’s time to get some rest. But first, a few snapshots.

It has been raining a lot, and the Medellín River is quite high.

Courtyard at the Universidad de Antioquia.

State universities in Colombia are nearly always coated with leftist graffiti, but the U de A is especially exuberant.

Travel Day

Hello from the gate in Miami. Look forward to being back in Medellín, where I’m speaking at an academic conference on migration. It’s been a while since I’ve visited Colombia’s second-largest city.

Back in Washington

We’ve successfully driven back to Washington from Massachusetts today, after successfully picking up our daughter at college, where she succeeded in completing her second year. So much success.

Somewhere in Connecticut, I think. It wasn’t my turn to drive.

Traffic wasn’t bad, and weather was mostly decent, in the northeastern United States today. America really does have an incredible amount of roads. And an incredible amount of people in cars, few of whom know that they’re not supposed to drive slowly in the leftmost lane.

It was too distant to get a picture, but for a moment driving through Baltimore we got a view of the ruins of the Key Bridge. It looks just like the photos in the news—and weeks later, the boat that hit it is still sitting there, right at the impact spot.

In New Jersey, we stopped for lunch with an old friend and his family. (I grew up in New Jersey and attended my town’s public schools from kindergarten all the way through high school.) For some reason, my friend had saved a 35-year-old copy of the high school English department’s “literary magazine.”

I have no memory of writing this incredible bummer of a poem. Nowadays, I feel at least a bit better about my fellow humans: let’s give some credit for art, literature, music, science, philosophy, and similar triumphs. But there are still days when this poem is on the nose.

Ten and a half hours after we’d left our hotel in Massachusetts, we arrived home and unpacked just as a rainstorm was ending. Check out that rainbow.

College Pick-Up

Hello from Massachusetts. I’m now the proud dad of a kid who is officially halfway through college. Wellesley College has treated her well, but she won’t be back here until 2025 because she’ll be studying abroad (in Asia, not Latin America) in the fall.

Parents in minivans and SUVs (mostly rented, like us) were helping empty out the dorms, where most kids were being kicked out today. At least the weather was pleasant. We’re back to Washington tomorrow.

(Her response on Israel/Gaza has hurt the on-campus popularity of the college’s best-known alum.)

WOLA Hits 50

The Washington Office on Latin America celebrated 50 years since its founding last night. As someone who spent the past 14 of those years with WOLA, I was delighted to be on hand at a party with 400 people, all living former directors, and 3 inspiring human rights awardees.

The most moving moment was the acceptance speeches from the Collectives of Searchers for Disappeared Relatives of Guanajuato, Mexico. I couldn’t help but feel rage at the callous treatment they and other victims’ groups have received from Mexico’s government, which most of us thought would be an ally to them, helping to achieve justice and closure, after Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected six years ago. What a disappointment.

Left to right, the directors of WOLA’s programs for Venezuela and Mexico (Laura Dib and Stephanie Brewer); President Carolina Jiménez; VP for Programs Maureen Meyer; Drug Policy Program Director John Walsh; and me, towering over everyone like André the Giant.

I was home before midnight, then up four hours later to fly to Massachusetts to pick up my daughter at college. That’s where I’m writing from right now.

A truly great night.

Wednesday (the Band) on Tuesday Night

At Washington’s 9:30 Club, Karly Hartzman screams through the harrowing final minutes of “Bull Believer,” from last year’s phenomenal album Rat Saw God.

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Saturday afternoon, holiday market in downtown Washington DC.

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A lamppost with its light on, even though it's daytime. Cloudless sky, trees with yellow and browning leaves on a city street.
Late fall in Washington, DC’s LeDroit Park neighborhood.

More Photos from Colombia

I just got back to Washington at mid-day today, after two weeks in Colombia. Before I left, I replaced my four-and-a-half year-old phone with a current model, because the old one’s port wasn’t always connecting to the cable and I didn’t want to find myself there with an unpowered phone.

The new phone isn’t much different than the old one, with one huge exception: the camera, which makes me seem like a much better photographer than I actually am.

Here are some images that are less work-related but just pretty cool. Presented in no particular order. Click on any to expand in a new window. (I’ve shared other photos from the trip in two earlier posts.)

Bogotá at night.

Mural in El Placer, Putumayo, Colombia.

A few hundred people from Embera-Katío Indigenous communities, displaced by violence in northwestern Colombia, have been camped since October in Bogotá’s Parque Nacional, in the middle of the city near the Javeriana University.

A griffin atop Colombia’s Congress building.

The people of Ipiales, Nariño celebrated Halloween with aplomb.

Not usually a fan of dressing kids up as cops, but the kid in the lower left in Ipiales is super cute.

The spot where we had a hearty breakfast in La Bonita, Ecuador, along the border with Nariño, Colombia.

Outside Lago Agrio, Ecuador, a few minutes’ drive south of Colombia.

Paramilitary display in the “Museum of Memory” in El Placer, Putumayo. The building used to be a school (hence the beat-up chalkboard), where paramilitaries committed numerous abuses. One of the photos on the chalk ledge was taken by me in 2004.

Darién Gap-bound migrants bathing in the Gulf of Urabá in Necoclí, Antioquia.

Boats in Necoclí, ready to take migrants across the Gulf of Urabá to the Darién Gap.

Orito, Putumayo on Saturday night.

Central Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar, recently grafitti’ed by student protesters.

Roadside arepas in La Hormiga, Putumayo.

Looking into San Miguel, Putumayo, Colombia from the Ecuador side of the border bridge.

Provisions for migrants’ walk through the Darién Gap, on sale near the dock in Turbo, Antioquia.

The army and police welcome you to Urabá, northwestern Colombia (at the Apartadó, Antioquia airport).

At the Rumichaca bridge between Ipiales, Nariño, Colombia and (in the background) Tulcán, Carchi, Ecuador.

Six days in Putumayo and Along the Colombia-Ecuador Border

Greetings from Bogotá. I’m here until tomorrow night, with 10 meetings on the schedule today and tomorrow.

This was day 13 of a 14-day research trip. I’ve slept in 10 different hotels in 9 places:

  • Bogotá
  • Apartadó, Antioquia
  • Necoclí, Antioquia
  • Bogotá
  • Puerto Asís, Putumayo
  • Orito, Putumayo
  • La Hormiga, Putumayo
  • Lago Agrio, Sucumbíos, Ecuador
  • Ipiales, Nariño
  • Pasto, Nariño
  • Bogotá

The purpose of this insane itinerary was to learn about the latest developments in migration through, and to, Colombia. I was able to visit the Colombia-Panama and Colombia-Ecuador border regions.

With two WOLA colleagues I was on the outskirts of the Darién Gap region straddling Colombia and Panama, through which nearly 500,000 migrants have passed so far this year. With longtime Colombian colleagues I also visited the border between Carchi, Ecuador and Nariño, Colombia, through which hundreds of Darién-bound migrants from dozens of countries pass each day.

While at the Colombia-Ecuador border I was also able to spend a few days in the department of Putumayo, which is where U.S.-backed military and police anti-drug operations began after the 2000 passage of the Clinton administration’s mammoth initial “Plan Colombia” aid package. Twenty-three years later, Putumayo remains a principal zone of coca and cocaine production, under the heavy influence of two feuding armed groups.

I need to go through my tens of thousands of words of notes just to come up with the number of meetings and conversations I’ve had since October 22. It’s more than 50. I’ve talked to people migrating, aid workers, international organizations, migrants associations, Indigenous groups, campesino groups, coca cultivators, mayors and other local officials, national government officials, U.S. diplomats, journalists, human rights defenders, police, scholars, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some sectors.

I’ve barely had time yet to process my notes, much less wrap my head around what I’ve seen and heard. But here are some photos from Putumayo, northern Ecuador, and Nariño. (I posted Darién-area photos about a week ago.)

The Putumayo River, which eventually flows in to the Amazon, just north of Puerto Asís, Putumayo.

At a supermarket in Orito, Putumayo, a sign advertises money transfers to Venezuela. People who have fled Venezuela live all over Colombia, even in places like Orito that are very distant from Venezuela and have a strong presence of coca cultivation and armed groups.

Colombia held local elections on Sunday October 29. On the evening of the 28th in Orito, mayoral candidates held rallies outside their party headquarters.

El Placer, Putumayo, was the site of a 1999 paramilitary massacre; the town became notorious nationwide for the paramilitaries’ systematic rapes of the town’s women and girls. At the time, the United States was pumping military aid into Putumayo under “Plan Colombia” even though the local armed forces collaborated with the paramilitaries. The town’s school, where paramilitaries committed many of the violations, is now a “museum of memory.” I took one of the photos on the wall here (see page 323 of this report) during a 2004 visit when I worked for the Center for International Policy.

The bridge between San Miguel, Putumayo, Colombia and General Farfán, Sucumbíos, Ecuador.

The mountains of Nariño, Colombia viewed from La Bonita, Sucumbíos, Ecuador.

Families—almost certainly Darién-bound, as they’re traveling with sleeping gear and minimal backpacks—at the bus station in the border city of Tulcán, Ecuador.

The two kids on the left, one with a Venezuelan flag-themed backpack, are southbound: they said they just left Venezuela and are headed to Peru, where they have relatives. This is the bus terminal in Tulcán, Ecuador.

We encountered several groups of people fleeing China. This is the Tulcán bus terminal, but people holding Chinese passports were also at the official border crossing and on my flight today from Pasto, Nariño to Bogotá.

The Rumichaca border crossing between Tulcán, Carchi, Ecuador and Ipiales, Nariño, Colombia.

The bus terminal in the border city of Ipiales, Nariño.

Migrant shelter run by Pastoral Social (Caritas) in Ipiales.

Back From Urabá, Colombia

I spent the past few days in and around Necoclí, Colombia, an area through which tens of thousands of migrants, from dozens of countries, pass. Here, they take boats across the Gulf of Urabá to the Darién region straddling Colombia and Panama, where they undergo a treacherous several-day journey through dense jungle.

Here are a few photos. I’m in another zone of Colombia now, as research continues, so there’s no time to write much yet. We had our photographer Sergio with us, who took much better photos than the ones here.

The Darién region, viewed from across the Gulf of Urabá.

Carrying provisions, people prepare to board boats. Most people we spoke with were from Venezuela, but we also spoke with people from Ecuador, Haiti, and Cuba, and saw some migrants from China.

Migrants who can’t pay the boat fare, and fees charged by organized crime, sleep on the beach until they can get enough money together. There are no migrant shelters in Necoclí.

A smaller number of migrants lacking boat fare waits in tents near the dock in Turbo, south of Necoclí.

Water purification tablets and mosquito spray for the jungle journey.

Armed-group tag in Turbo.

Sheridan Circle Today

Chile President Gabriel Boric right now in Washington’s Sheridan Circle, at today’s memorial of the 1976 state terrorist attack here that killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.